Connecting to Our Planet

Birds Offer a Connection to Tens of Millions of Coffee Drinkers

It’s spring migration time, and America’s most beautiful birds are flying home. This dazzling songbird rainbow includes lemon yellow warblers, cherry red tanagers, and eye-popping orange orioles that are completing epic migrations – some flying over 5,000 miles each year between their breeding grounds in U.S. and Canada and wintering areas in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

As a member of the coffee industry, you are no passive bystander to this impressive natural phenomenon. Your coffee-sourcing decisions make you an active participant, because at least 42 species of these migrants, including many of America’s most beloved birds, like Baltimore Orioles, are coming from coffee farms.

But not just any coffee farm will do.  Migratory birds thrive in farms where coffee is grown under tall trees (“shade-coffee”) that provide them critical habitat and food resources. The research my students and I have done in Venezuela and Colombia shows that many migratory birds, from Canada Warblers to Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to Summer Tanagers, can thrive on shade-coffee farms. Shade-coffee promotes overwinter survival and good body condition, which means these healthy birds are more likely to survive their long flight back to North America to nest and contribute offspring to the next generation of birds.

And many of these populations need more offspring. Because more than half of the migratory species known to winter on coffee farms are declining significantly.

Birdwatchers as a Market Opportunity 

This connection between birds and coffee represents a powerful market opportunity given that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 46 million birdwatchers in the U.S.. If 57 percent of Americans drink coffee daily (according to the National Coffee Association), there could be as many as 26 million Americans who care about birds and coffee, or about 17% of the U.S. coffee market.

This demographic is willing to put their money to work for birds.  Birdwatchers purchase and maintain birdfeeders, travel to far-flung places to watch birds, and support conservation organizations. Birdwatchers get involved because they know that bird populations are declining globally.

Drivers of migratory bird declines include deforestation and loss of wintering habitats, including shade-coffee farms.  Although coffee was grown under a forest canopy when the Dutch introduced it to the New World in the 1700s, many farms have since been “modernized” and converted from shade- to sun-grown coffee. When that happens, trees are cleared and coffee is planted in a row-crop monoculture like an Iowa cornfield. More than 60 percent of shade-coffee farms in Colombia were converted to sun-coffee between 1970-1990, and today over 75 percent of Colombia’s mountain forests are gone.

But importantly, coffee can be part of the conservation solution. Many specialty coffees are grown under trees—not for altruism, but to improve the specialty grade. Nespresso is paying farmers in Antioquia, Colombia to plant canopy trees to ensure that quality coffee is produced sustainably. “The nutrients administered by the trees give the coffee a unique fragrance,” says Francisco Javier Velazquez Budelo, administrator for the De los Andes Cooperativa that sells to Nespresso. “It gives the coffee more taste, more force.”

A Sustainability Signal for Millennials

Many companies, like Nespresso, want to brand their coffee as having high marks for taste and sustainability. This branding is particularly important for millennials (18 to 40 year-olds)—the most promising growth segment of the coffee market who cite sustainability as a key driver of their coffee-purchasing decisions. Millennials are the demographic most likely to purchase gourmet coffee beverages. And market research by commercial coffee roaster S&D Coffee & Tea found that “sustainability” was the most attractive brand attribute among millennials. According to the report, the “vast majority of millennials” are willing to pay a premium for sustainable coffee.

There’s a catch though. Only 22 percent of millennials in S&D’s survey knew what “sustainability” meant when it comes to coffee.

Admittedly, sustainability can be a tricky word. But that’s where birds come in—as a sustainability indicator for the lucrative millennial market. The trees on coffee farms that support birds also prevent soil erosion, conserve water, supply chemical-free fertilizer (in the form of fallen leaves), and buffer against a warming climate.   What is good for the birds is good for the environment, more broadly.

Combine coffee-drinking millennials with coffee-drinking birdwatchers, and the market potential for coffee from farms that host migratory birds swells to more than 50 million Americans—more than a third of the entire U.S. coffee market.

Adding Birds to your Marketing Mix

How can coffee sellers include birds in their marketing plans? The easiest way is to purchase coffee certified as “Bird Friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Bird Friendly coffee has the most stringent environmental standards, but it can be difficult to find with only 0.1 percent of coffee sales in the U.S. Yet the potential is much greater because only 10 percent of the 12 million pounds of coffee that qualify for Bird Friendly certification is actually labelled as such. Interested retailers and roasters can request the label from importers.

Even outside of Bird Friendly certification, buyers can still support migratory birds by purchasing Rainforest-Alliance certified coffee. Even though Rainforest Alliance’s shade standards aren’t as stringent as Bird Friendly, some shade is always better than none for birds. I’ve found that coffee farms with as little as 25 percent shade canopy can support large flocks of migratory birds.

Remember this:  when it comes to coffee and birds, everything counts. I always tell coffee drinkers, if you can buy Bird Friendly coffee of the highest standards, do it. But don’t give up if you can’t; just make the best choices you can with birds and the environment in mind.

The same advice applies to farmers, importers, or any company that buys and sells coffee. Source Bird Friendly if you can, or Rainforest Alliance—or get creative. If you’re sourcing coffee directly from a farm or cooperative, work with them to improve their habitat for birds. Then hire a local biologist to catalogue the birds found on these farms. In many places in Colombia or Guatemala or throughout Latin America, it’s easy to find a local birding guide or scientist who will conduct a bird survey for you.

Then share the results of your bird survey to connect your customers with the birds. Tell them the story of how their morning cup of coffee makes a difference in the lives of the beautiful, brightly colored birds that light up spring and summer in the northern hemisphere. Explain how the same coffee farms that host our migratory warblers and orioles in winter also support the livelihoods of coffee-growing families and local communities, ensure healthy environments, and mitigate climate change.

The pathway of those migratory songbirds returning to North America marks not only the way home, but also a way forward to product differentiation and sustainability for coffee companies. The market potential is there for those willing to connect with tens of millions of coffee-drinking millennials and bird lovers.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin Professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a Public Voices fellow.

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